Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What's in a name?

Indeed.  What is in a name?  For many of us, it is intimately tied to our image of ourselves, our very identity.  It’s often the first thing we tell people when we met them, it’s on our driver’s license, bank account and diploma. 

We use our name to categorize ourselves into families. It’s often part of our cultural identity.  When we marry, as women, we may change our last name to reflect our new family membership.  (All commentary about taking your husband’s name as part of a larger male dominated part of society is for another post. On someone else’s blog.)

When we introduce ourselves, we say, “I am ________”.

Names tell us a lot.  They have meaning.  People form an impression of you just learning your name.  Are you smart (Joseph)? Are you old fashioned (Bertha)?  Are you fun (Chad)? Are you feminine (Crystal)? Are you masculine (Bruno)? Are you caring (Hope)? 

Odd spellings and diminutives can cause the owner to be seen as less attractive, less serious and ultimately less successful. Remember what a stir Jimmy Carter caused when he wanted to be called Jimmy and not James? It’s one of the reasons that prospective parents spend so much time and angst deciding what to call their baby.  Too popular is just as bad as too unique.  After all, being one of several Jennifer’s in your class can be just as difficult as being a Myque and forever and always having to spell and help people pronounce your name. It’s pronounced like “Mike”, by the way.

A name has power. Didn’t you know when your Mom called you by your full name that you were in for it?  We even try to hide our names, at times.  We post on the Internet with “user names” to hide our identity.  We worry about someone stealing our name and identity and ruining our credit or worse.
We name storms and ships and pets and cars. We name buildings and countries and cities and gods both big and small. And we name our children.

Sometimes those names are a burden; too much to live up to or so different from how we see ourselves that they must change. Nowhere is this truer than for a transgender individual.
For a transgender person, a choice of a name that reflects their gender identity is often a first major step in their transition.  It says to the world: This is who I am.  This is how I see myself.  It becomes part of their fight to be accepted for who they are and when people who have known them pre-transition are reluctant to use it, many hurt feelings follow.

Many times this is most evident within their families.  Families have to transition almost as much as the transperson themselves.  Changing how you see someone you’ve known his or her entire life is difficult and takes conscious effort.  While the transperson has had years to come to terms and accept their gender identity, their family often has a steep learning curve. 

I recently attended an Open and Affirming workshop sponsored by the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns that focused on Transgender issues.  One of the most important things I came away with was the gender is fluid.  Categorizing everyone by either male or female doesn’t recognize the wide variance that exists and causes much hurt.  Many of the transfolk at the workshop spoke about how the pressure to conform to societal norms nearly drove them to the brink of suicide, a feeling of “transition or die”. Indeed, suicide rates from LGBT youth are estimated to 4 times as high as their straight counterparts.

So, what’s in a name?



skyewriter said...

Naming is indeed a powerful thing.

Naming oneself even more so.

Personal identity is important to nurture. Just as is learning to be an individual.

Judith Butler's _Bodies that Matter_ or _Gender Trouble_ are two excellent reads on this very topic.

Yet another great post, True Blue!

Aliceson said...

So true. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson (from my state) has an unusual (redundant) name, I had a hard time taking him seriously because of that. Also, common practice around here is naming your child (I've seen it in both genders) Harley, if the last name happens to be Davidson. Poor kids.